Memorial Day: Remembering why we are free

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Honoring those who died in the cause of freedom animates our American tradition of Memorial Day. Its history and meaning are profound.

After the Civil War, both the South and the North – independently of each other and with efforts driven primarily by women’s groups – decorated the graves of fallen soldiers. States of the Confederacy and the Union began informally setting aside various “Decoration Day” and “Memorial Day” holidays to remember their war dead. Events were generally in the spring, mostly in May, and largely local.

Union General John Logan is credited with declaring the first “Memorial Day,” and on May 30, 1868, Union and Confederate graves at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. were decorated with flowers. The date stuck. Scattered observances became an annual, cohesive and inclusive American memorial to the cost of freedom.

Since 1911, Indianapolis has been host to the Mother of All Memorial Day Celebrations, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Dubbed “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in the 1950s by “Voice of the 500” radio announcer Sid Collins, the “500” was on Memorial Day only because in 1910 Indianapolis organizers had run day-long, multi-race events on the three summer holidays, and Memorial Day had the largest crowd.

So in 1911, promoters decided to have just one race date, Memorial Day, with just one spectacular race. Wanting an all-day event for the picnicking spectators, and knowing that cars of the era raced 75 to 80 mph, organizers did the math (7 hours at 75 to 80 mph) and inaugurated a 500-mile race called “The International Sweepstakes.” Over time it became known as The Indianapolis 500.

But I digress. And that’s my point.

Too often, easily and quickly, we identify with the fun, secular trappings of holidays: Easter eggs, Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas trees, the “500,” etc. We focus on the party. And personally, I love the “500.” But deeper truths about humanity and our relationship with God undergird the significance of this particular holiday.

Memorial Day isn’t just honoring American war dead at a public event. It’s the reverent act of remembering why they died – freedom.

War reveals more about human nature than about God’s eternal plan. In our fallen earthly existence, human freedom is something for which we have to fight and sometimes die. Jesus Christ on the Cross fulfilled God’s loving plan to defeat death (John 3:16) and restore eternal freedom (Galatians 5:1). As Americans on Memorial Day, let’s remember that eternal freedom is what motivated America’s founders


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